A question we often hear at The New York Public Library's Milstein reference desk is “How can I find information about my family’s business?”
"Well, what’s so great about a Mom-and-Pop store? Let me tell you something. If my Mom and Pop ran a store, I wouldn’t shop there." (from "The Mom & Pop Store." Seinfeld, Season 6, Episode 8). Photo: A friendly game by the pot-bellied stove. NYPL Digital
This should come as no surprise: families and business have been firmly linked throughout America’s history. From colonial-era farms to industrial robber baron dynasties, families have been a driving force in the growth of American enterprise. And not just lawful business—fuggedaboutit! Families also rule the underworld economy ("My father was in it. My uncle was in it. Maybe I was too lazy to think for myself," fictional mobster Tony Soprano explains).
Family businesses are so entrenched in our economy that a separate field of study is now devoted to them; you can even earn a degree in family business! While accurate numbers are hard to come by, it’s been estimated that nearly 90 percent of American businesses are run by families. It's no coincidence that the quintessential symbol of American business—the "Mom-and-Pop" store —is named after the startups of the family unit.
Even if you aren’t aware of it, there may be a not-yet discovered business lurking in your family tree. Like the businesses themselves, which "were often ephemeral, dying before their owners," as described by OAH Magazine of History, information about a family store or firm may not have been passed down the generations.
Since family business records were rarely saved, it is especially easy for short-lived and/or small ventures to slip out of memory. And while digging up the details of a defunct enterprise can be challenging, it’s worth every bit of extra effort. After all, for most of our ancestors, no less (alas!) than ourselves, work was the main event of everyday life. So learning about a family business, or an ancestor’s occupation, can be one of the best ways to connect with your past.
Case study: The Darbees of Oneonta
A good example is the enterprising William Wallace Darbee (1850-1921), profiled in Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York and the Hudson River Valley. In 1874, Darbee established a book and stationary store in Oneonta, New York. Within a year, he added wallpaper to his offerings.
He married in 1882, and “Mrs. Darbee [Jennie Lind Palmer] at once began assisting in the store.” Overcoming various setbacks, including a fire that burned their store (and home) to the ground, the couple relocated and expanded their operation. They added a printing business, began making rubber stamps, and eventually started a confectionary and ice cream parlor.
Not surprisingly, the "work and care of all this business" took its toll and, in 1910, the couple sold everything but the printing and wallpaper business. These the Darbees continued to operate, apparently with success:
Mr. Darbee… is considered an expert at job printing, plate printing, die stamping and making rubber stamps… Mrs. Darbee takes entire charge of the wallpaper and assists in the printing department. Since they were burned out Mr. and Mrs. Darbee have always boarded and both have given their entire time and attention to the business.
Far more than a birth, death, or marriage record, this information about the Darbees’ business helps us imagine their daily lives. We can picture them sorting metal letters at the typecase, hear them discussing their accounts, and catch them rolling their eyes at a cranky wallpaper shopper.
Tracing the history of their business allows us to share in a fateful event (the devastating fire of 1888) that surely had a profound effect on their lives. Their persistence in relocating and expanding their business in the face of hardships tells us something about their characters as well.
We’ve also picked up a number of clues for further research: Learning about the various trades they practiced and merchandise they stocked, the business community in Oneonta, and women’s participation in business at the time, can all deepen our understanding of what their lives were actually like.
So how do you go about uncovering the history of an ancestor’s business? In the case of William Darbee, the details were already compiled in a single source by Cuyler Reynolds (historian, librarian, curator, and author of the aforementioned Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York and the Hudson River Valley and other invaluable genealogical works.) But this is rare good luck, something most researchers can only dream about!
Even if you become one of the fortunate few—the genealogical One Percent—to find a similar source for your own ancestor, you would need to corroborate the information with other sources. Biographies in works like Reynolds's were often submitted by the subject or his/her family, and are noted more for embellishing the achievements and virtues of the person(s) described than for factual accuracy. To help you with the legwork, we’ve put together a research guide that describes some of the most useful resources for finding business history.
To test it out, let’s use some of these sources to try to corroborate Cuyler Reynolds’s account of the Darbees. As with many other genealogical questions, censuses are a good place to start. Beginning in 1850, the census lists each family member and their occupation. Looking at William Darbee’s census records, we see his occupation listed as:
- 1900 census—Books & Stationery
- 1910 census—Store Proprietor
- 1920 census—Printer
Although Mr. Darbee’s occupation is described differently in each successive record, these entries do not tell the full story of the Darbees’ evolving operations. For example, according to Reynolds, Darbee began his printing business in 1897, but only the 1920 census identifies him as a printer. And only the 1910 census explicitly identifies Darbee as a business owner.
To interpret these responses, it’s important to check the instructions that were issued to the census enumerators (available on the U.S. Census website). Looking at the 1920 census instructions, for instance, we find the following:
154. Persons having two occupations. If a person has two Occuptl,tions, return only the more important one-that is, the one from which he gets the more money. . .
So the census may not tell you the whole story, and often won’t reflect whether your ancestor operated a business. By identifying a business category for your ancestor, though, the census can open the door for further digging.
You’ll also notice that no occupation is listed for Jennie Darbee in 1900 or 1910 (the latter lists her only as “Mrs. Darbee,” without even including her first name!). This is not surprising: married women were rarely regarded as having “occupations” at the time, even if they made significant contributions—as Jennie apparently did—to their husband’s business (for more information on this topic, see Uncovering the hidden work of women in family businesses: A history of census undernumeration).
Again, the instructions are essential. There are specific directions about how and when to record the occupations of women. When Jennie’s contributions are finally acknowledged in the 1920 census, her occupation is listed as "stenographer." In the absence of other information, we might picture Jennie typing up dictation in an office like the one pictured here:
New York World's Fair, Offices at Work Exhibit, Stenographic section (1939-1940). NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1679553
But Cuyler Reynolds’s description of Jennie’s work activities suggests another interpretation. It’s possible the census enumerator was simply using a term that was iconically associated with working women to describe Jennie’s work setting type, or assisting her husband generally.
Either explanation is plausible and more research would be necessary to figure out the best answer. The point to keep in mind when conducting your own research? Don’t take historical records at face value! Multiple interpretations are often possible, and to get the most accurate picture, it’s important to understand the historical context.
Census records are just the jumping-off point. For more detail about the Darbees’ business activities, we need to consult local directories. Early city directories served primarily as business directories, so listings included the residents’ occupations.
In the 1901 Williams’ Oneonta Directory (available on-site at all NYPL collections through Ancestry Library Edition), we find a much fuller description of W. Wallace Darbee’s business activities: "books, stationery, printing and wallpaper." Try squeezing all that into the pre-printed census form!
Most early directories also have a classified business section, which lists businesses by category rather than by name. Sure enough, if we look at the back of the 1901 Oneonta directory, we find multiple listings for William W. Darbee, under "Booksellers and Stationers," "Printers" and "Wallpaper."
Interestingly, we do not find a Darbee listed under "Confectionery, Ice Cream and Fruits," but there is a listing for an Anthony Bottini nearby at 144 Main Street (it may even adjoin 141 Main Street, the address listed for William Darbee’s business). Perhaps Darbee leased the premises to Anthony Bottini, or there is another connection between the two? To investigate these possibilities, we might consult insurance maps, look for tax records, or try to locate a business registration or license.
Before we turn to other records, though, we have to finish exploring the city directories. Don’t stop with the business listings; directories are an invaluable source of many other types of information as well, including local trade-related organizations. Case in point: by checking the "Fraternal Organizations" listings in the 1901 Oneonta directory,we learn that W.W. Darbee was the financier of the Ancient Order of United Workmen.
The Ancient Order of United Workmen was one of the first fraternal associations to provide mutual insurance policies for its members. So this affiliation not only tells us more about Darbee’s activities, it also hints at the lasting impact of the fire that destroyed his business.
In addition, it provides another avenue for research. We can look for records from this association, and research the other officers to learn about the people with whom Darbee associated. We might also want to investigate whether Mrs. Darbee was a member of the Degree of Honor Protective Association, a female auxiliary to the Ancient Order of United Workmen.
Troy Daily Times, March 1888. Accessed through Fulton History
Newspapers are another excellent source of information about businesses. In addition to advertisements, newspapers may contain information about openings and closings, leases, help wanted listings, and other newsworthy events. For example, with just a quick search in the free newspaper database Fulton History, we found an article about the March 1888 fire that destroyed the Darbees business and, as we learn, many other local businesses.
While far from complete, our independent research has already unearthed many details included in Reynolds’s entry about the Darbees—and even some that weren’t! It’s also revealed some essential tips for conducting any type of genealogical research:
- Always corroborate information with as many sources as possible
- Don’t assume the first answer you find is the only answer, or the right one!
- To properly interpret genealogical records, you may need to do additional research into their historical context
The Darbees provide just one example of how much you can learn by researching your family’s occupational history. Browsing old advertisements gives you an idea of the number and variety of businesses your ancestors could have started. Consider how much it would add to your family history to learn that your great-great grandfather was the president of The World’s Embalming Company in the City of New York.
Or maybe you're related to one of the founders of Hendrickson & Hover, Manufacturers and Dealers in All Kinds Of Cans, Lanterns, and Trumpets, Wholesale and Retail, or Mitchell & Croasdale, Dealers In Sperm, Whale, Lard & Tanners Oil, Candles, Rice & C. Bedding, Bedsteads, cots & c.
And don’t forget the ladies. What if your great-great-great aunt operated Mrs. Hardley’s Parisian Hair Dressing Rooms at No. 110 Sixth Avenue, opposite Jefferson Market?
New York City directory, 1865/66. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 56768101
Immigrants are, and historically have been, more likely to open their own business than native-born Americans (see Bringing Vitality to Main Street: How Immigrant Small Businesses Help Local Economies Grow), so you may want to focus your search on the first ancestors to arrive in the U.S. Even if there were no entrepreneurs in your own family, learning about the occupational patterns of your ethnic or national group can help you place your ancestors’ experiences in historical context. After all, most immigrants came to America seeking financial opportunity, and often clustered in particular occupations or businesses.
Italian pushcart vendors, German bakers and brewers, Jewish tailors and dressmakers, Chinese restaurant owners—just a few of the most iconic examples of ethnic entrepreneurship. And because all our ancestors were consumers, learning about the local businesses in the area your family lived can help you better understand your ancestor’s daily lives.
Stereogram photo of a Chinese store, Sacramento Street, San Francisco, 1875. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: G89F406_015F
So take a look at our guide How To Research a Family Business and see what you can find!